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Reclaiming the word "Nigga"

December 2, 2015

 

A word is more than just a combination of letters. Words are loaded with strongly positive or negative connotative meanings. Depending on the context, a word can even possess both positive and negative connotations, or have its meaning evolve into something entirely different. According to April Schneider in “Reclaiming the Word Nigger,” as language evolves over the course of history, the meanings of words fluctuate.” This is the case with the “N-word”, which was reclaimed in modern day by African Americans in efforts to regain power over those who used the term derogatively towards them. The “N-word” originates from the Latin word “niger,” which means black in English. It is also a variation of the Spanish and Portuguese noun Negro. The word then lost its emotional neutrality during the mid-twentieth century, when Southern Whites used the “N-word” as a derogatory slur towards African American slaves. This racial slur dehumanized African American slaves by implying inferiority and hatred. The “N-word” can be considered the most severe and offensive word among other slurs such as “cracker”, “kike” and “queer” because it so closely tied with our history. The word is still today associated with images of death and severe racism, yet throughout the generations, the word has mutated into something relatively positive. While the roots of the word remind Americans of our disconcerting and shameful past, the word has been revived, taking on an entirely new meaning. Our current usage—now exchanging the “a” at the end of the word for an “er”—is no longer derogative and racist, but endearing, signifying friendship and camaraderie. Interchangeable with the term “homie”, another slang term originating from Chicano culture, Urban Americans will say phrases such as “that’s my nigga” to indicate that someone is like a brother to them. The new use of the “N-word” has expanded not just conversationally, but throughout the entertainment industry as well. Popular hip-hop/rap artists, including Lil Wayne, ASAP Rocky, YG, and many more, use the word “Nigga” repeatedly within their music. YG even has a song entitled “My Nigga”, where he repeats that phrase over and over in the chorus. The word has revived for a very important purpose: African Americans have reclaimed “nigga” because it allows them to take ownership of the word and it takes the power away from those who would use it to degrade them. The 1985 rap group A Tribe Called Quest addresses this idea in their song titled “Sucka Nigga:” "See, nigga first was used down in the Deep South Falling out between the dome of the white man's mouth It means that we will never grow, you know the word dummy Other niggas in the community think it's crummy But I don't, neither does the youth cause we Em-brace adversity it goes right with the race Yo I start to flinch, as I try not to say it But my lips is like the oowop as I start to spray it" We may not be able to control a situation, but we can control how we want to respond emotionally. “Embracing adversity” allows a marginalized group of people to take a negative situation and make it a positive one; it allows them to regain power and dignity and rise up against the adversity they face. This sense of revival in the Black community would not be the first. The Harlem Renaissance—referred to as the “New Negro Movement” at that time—in Harlem, New York during the 1920’s, reflected a time when African-Americans rose up after slavery and reclaimed their identity within American culture, through the rebirth and explosion of African-American arts. The Harlem Renaissance redefined how America and the rest of the world viewed African-Americans. Similarly, we have redefined how we view and use the word “nigga”. This concept of reclaiming can be identified in other forms throughout society as well. In class we discussed “Homie toys,” which are little plastic figurines representing different Chicano Mexican-American archetypes. For reasons that are analogous to African-Americans use of the word “nigga,” Chicano Mexian-Americans are over-performing their stereotypes with the “Homie toys” to own it and take the power away from other people who would demean their group for those qualities. Homosexuals’ use of the word “queer” is a very similar situation, where the term was originally used to defame homosexuals for being perverse, until they reclaimed the word to mean something that is shameless and “cool”, in the words of Schneider in her article “Reclaiming the word Nigger.” Schneider also provides an evocative metaphor to explain the power of reclaiming: “The way to defeat an enemy is simple—steal their ammunition.” This idea of “stealing ammunition” is synonymous with what the Jews did with their sense humor. Jews feel it is important to be able to laugh at oneself, and used a type of self-denigrating humor as a means of survival during their rocky past. This type of humor enabled them to reinterpret their negative stereotypes in a positive way, and this takes the “ammunition” away from those who would have used these derogatory jokes against them. It seems futile to make fun of someone who is already making fun of themselves, and rather than laughing at them, the Jews were laughing with them. Reclaiming the word “nigga” is African-Americans’ way of not only laughing with their oppressors, but laughing back at them, because they will not be defeated by a dehumanizing word. They will instead claim ownership of the word and direct it towards something positive and uplifting.

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